Two days ago, the actor and director David Ferry posted a letter on Facebook and the Praxis Theatre website excoriating the city’s young — 35 and under — theatre practitioners for their alleged silence in response to the firing of Ken Gass, the influential long-time Artistic Director of the Factory Theatre. This letter prompted a large number of passionate responses from members of the city’s independent theatre community, too rich and varied in tone and content to summarize here. Two dominant themes emerged, though: a pervasive sense of disenfranchisement on the part of younger theatre artists, who feel that they have not received much support from the established not-for-profit professional theatre companies in Toronto and consequently feel somewhat indifferent to what is happening at the Factory Theatre; and a sense that the kind of theatre represented by those companies (all founded in the early 1970s) and their artistic directors has little to do with the kind of work theatre artists of the younger generations are engaged in — work that often requires them to play multiple roles, define themselves outside the traditional boundaries of Equity rules, and work that frequently fails to conform to the expectations of provincial or federal funding bodies. Aislinn Rose’s response to Ferry makes the latter case most eloquently.

I am fascinated by the entire debate, and I am glad that the discussion seems to be moving beyond a personnel issue (however disgracefully the Factory Theatre board of directors may have acted) to a much needed broader conversation about the state of professional theatre in Toronto. Within that broader context, I thought I’d raise two (somewhat related) issues that have always puzzled me about the city’s theatrical scene.

The first is simple, basic, and one I have been ranting about to everyone willing to listen for some time now: why are there so few young actors on our professional stages? With few exceptions, and if you’re lucky, it seems to take about ten years of unpaid labour for a new face to be considered worthy of a part in a major, paid (Equity or not), non-festival production likely to be reviewed in the press — at which point those actors in their 30s may be cast as teenagers or people in their early 20s. I don’t get to New York often enough, but I do manage to see a fair number of shows in London every year, and the situation there could not be more different. Young people, by and large, are played by young actors, sometimes still a little raw but almost always making up for what they lack in experience with energy and freshness. The current production of Laura Wade’s Posh, a Royal Court show now in the West End, is a case in point: the ten Oxford students that make up the bulk of the dramatis personae are almost all played by actors in their 20s, with a young-looking 32-year-old as the single exception; one cast member is still in theatre school. When do we ever see this sort of cast on our stages?

It’s not that there isn’t a wealth of young talent in the city. I’ve had the privilege of teaching some of them. But few of our Artistic Directors seem willing to take a chance on new faces, preferring instead to rely on the ability of older actors to impersonate youth. That’s not a system designed for development and growth. (And lest I be misunderstood, I’m not being ageist: I have no quarrel with plays full of grown-up, middle-aged, or old characters played by grown-up, middle-aged, or old actors. But casting those actors in roles ten to twenty years younger than their bodies is just adding insult to injury. It’s reverse ageism.)

The second issue is rather more complex. What pervades many of the responses to David Ferry’s letter, including Aislinn Rose’s, is a sense that being a “theatre artist” or “creating new work” means the production of wholly new shows — in collaboration with a writer, or by writing one’s own material, self-produced, possibly self-directed. As Michael Wheeler wrote some time ago, in a post on the Praxis Theatre website,

There are very few artists under 35 who categorize themselves solely as “actors”. We all have multiple identities now. Someone is a playwright-dancer-director, another artist is an actor-choreographer-writer, and I even know a stage manager-lighting designer-poet. These are the people creating art now. Most importantly, we are all producers. If you try to explain this to anyone at CAEA they look at you like you’re speaking gibberish. It’s like there are no check boxes to accommodate this reality so we’re just going to pretend it isn’t the case.

I find this an utterly baffling and quite limited notion of what “creating art” in the theatre means. But although it may be at odds with Equity thinking, it’s perhaps a little less at odds with the traditions of theatre-making in Toronto. It is telling, after all, that almost all the not-for-profit companies in the city have a mandate of staging new, predominantly Canadian work. With the exception of Soulpepper, none of Toronto’s theatres show much interest in plays written before the 1960s; and if recent developments at Soulpepper are a harbinger of things to come, plays older than 100 years will soon be a very rare breed again in the city.

As someone who grew up in Europe, I find this an almost unbelievably bizarre situation — and the idea that Toronto’s theatre is so insistently presentist because Stratford and Shaw (two festivals both at least a two-hour drive away) cover the market for “classical” theatre (such as Jesus Christ Superstar and His Girl Friday), leaving no audiences for such fare in the city itself seems nothing short of laughable.

For the most part, Toronto offers theatregoers an astonishingly limited theatrical canon. And the Soulpepper model, if anything, makes things worse. Why should there be an entire theatre devoted just to non-contemporary plays, after all? It’s a response to the predominance of companies that simply ignore anything written by past generations of dramatists, but it keeps the notion alive that such works are different, in a category by themselves, plays of the past, about the past. There is no need for such a vision. Nor is there any need for the division between new play development and the staging of old, even ancient drama. Again, London makes for instructive comparison (on a much larger scale, yes, but it’s the principle that matters). Take the National Theatre. The company stages new works — last year’s smash hits London Road and One Man, Two Guvnors, for instance (the latter admittedly an adaptation of an 18th-century play) — alongside ancient drama (this year, Antigone), “classical” plays (last year, Hamlet and Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, this year Timon of Athens), and works of the more recent past (such as Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma this year). Nor is there anything unusual in this kind of repertory. The Old Vic, for instance, operates the same way, as does the Donmar Warehouse, as does the Almeida. Even a small, defiantly fringy and avant-garde company such as The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, devoted to producing international works in translation, does not restrict its canon chronologically, staging “classical” plays as well as those written in recent years. Lastly, such an approach to building a repertory has a very long tradition, going back at least to Elizabethan England. Theatres have always relied on a combination of revivals of old and very old plays, updated and altered where desirable, and brand new works. As a theatre historian, I’m relatively ignorant of developments after 1650 and beyond the British Isles, but for what it’s worth, I can’t readily think of a historical precedent for Toronto’s almost exclusive preoccupation with recent and current drama. (Almost all our theatres want to be the Royal Court. That wouldn’t work in London either).

But our theatres’ obsession with new plays doesn’t just seem strange to me from a historical perspective. After all, the very thing that’s unique about theatrical performance — its ephemerality — means that newness is built into the art form: every show is different every night, and certainly every production of a play offers a new, differently exciting, differently interesting (or differently boring) experience. Unlike film, theatre does not essentially depend on new scripts: it depends on new performances. It takes some effort to make theatre predictable, and the more predictable it becomes, the less true it is, arguably, to its nature. Now, admittedly, there is a strong tendency in the Anglo-American tradition to tame the stage’s anarchic or innovative qualities in performances of “classical” works, especially Shakespeare’s, and this tendency may be to blame for the conviction that in order to be “relevant” or speak to contemporary audiences, actors need to perform plays written within living memory. The very notion that “classical” drama must be staged, enacted, spoken, in a particular, regimented fashion is antithetical to the view of performance as taking place in the present, with the help of contemporary audiences with contemporary concerns and points of view. But there is no need to treat plays from past periods this way. If anything, with playwrights long dead, texts out of copyright, and performance practices long forgotten by all but theatre historians lucky enough to have access to reliable records (not me), old plays should be a modern acting company’s delight — well-written, well-crafted scripts ripe for exploration, transformation, and refashioning for modern audiences.

So why aren’t they? Why is our dramatic canon so massively restricted? In a city that can draw on so many national cultures and forms of heritage, where are the productions of Spanish golden age plays, or French comedies, or German Sturm und Drang, classical, or Romantic drama? Where are the Pirandellos or Brechts? Why does no one do English eighteenth-century drama? Why can’t we do Shaw in Toronto? Or, for that matter, why will no one touch the Greek or Roman classics? Aristophanes is still funny; Sophocles still devastating. (That’s just ticking the very obvious boxes — the kinds of plays regularly featured in the repertories of companies all over Europe; and yes, I’m being viciously Eurocentric in all this. There are still other worlds elsewhere!) There is a wealth of plays, hundreds of them, from hundreds of years of theatrical tradition, ripe for the choosing, only waiting to be combined in an interesting, challenging repertory with new works, in new contexts, staged in new ways by new actors using new techniques or technical equipment, seen by new audiences. And many of them have parts for young actors to boot. Why does Toronto have to live without all that? More to the point, how can a city supposedly as proud of its theatrical life as Toronto afford to cut itself off from the living history of theatre like that?

11 Responses to After the Old Farts: Questions about Toronto Theatre

  1. Your phrase “non-English classical canon” kind of destroys my argument. Still, though, while I was at York we were treated to Shakespeare, Brecht, Chekhov, and Ovid. Hart House generally stages a Shakespearean play a year, along with mostly modern plays, but every now and then something from Aristophanes. The Village Playhouse last year staged a new adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe. Alumnae Theatre recently staged Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Agreeably, however, these are very few and far between. The amount of early-modern and modern plays vastly outweigh the number of classics staged in any one year. I wonder if this has to do with, if you will, collective cultural memory? Canada’s history formed during the Victorian period. It seems we are endlessly fascinated with understanding these roots but rarely anything older. Maybe it’s because the older doesn’t seem quite as immediate?

  2. Holger Syme says:

    Much to say, but I’ll limit myself to a quick question. Andrew — re your first point: where? Neither Ryerson nor York have done full-scale productions from the non-English classical canon in the past ten years as far as I can tell. York regularly does non-Shakespearean early modern material, as does our Theatre and Drama Studies program at U of T Mississauga/Sheridan. And Brecht gets done with some frequency. But that seems to be pretty much it. Which “community theatre” companies do this kind of work? (Part of the problem there is, of course, communication — how to find out about what’s happening where and when, and if it’s worth seeing…)

  3. It’s actually quite easy to find the sort of Eurocentric repertory theatre you talk about, although to do so you have to cross the bizarre North American divide we’ve created between “Professional” theatre and “Community” theatre. Community theatres tackle older plays with alarming regularity (so do theatres owned and operated at universities and colleges). Reasons for this, and this has been touched on by a few of the comments above, sadly seem to always boil down to money. With Community theatre (and post-graduate theatre schools) you don’t have to pay the creative team and therefore are easily capable of (and sometimes responsible for) filling plays with casts of more than 4. If one considers oneself an active theatre practitioner of the Toronto theatre scene, though, there’s only so much you can do for free.

    What I’m interested in is why we have created this divide between professional and community (not counting the work done in training centres) when, I’ve been told, other places, such as Europe, never have? I realise standards are different between the two factions but, training aside, aren’t artists who work in the community field and do so for the love of putting on a play deserving of the same recognition that artists in the professional world receive? Why can’t the standards be raised all across the board? It doesn’t mean shutting those with less experience out, it means working harder to create a higher-quality product.

    I guess everything comes back to the argument that started it all: that the established structures an artist must go through to “legitimately” create theatre are more stifling than nurturing.

  4. MK says:

    As someone who has directed both Shaw and Ben Jonson on Toronto stages, I feel I can comment on this. I directed Saint Joan for a company, Upstart Crow, in 1999. Its artistic director, Chris Coculuzzi, is quite vocal about the current Factory situation because of the really hard road he had in trying to produce classical theatre that isn’t Shakespeare. Forget about trying to pay anyone because venue & marketing costs ate up your budget. Granting agencies won’t even look at you because you’re not create new Canadian work. He was able to turn out good work because he had a stable of committed actors who were all surviving on working full-time. You can only do that for so long, and Upstart Crow went to just doing a fringe show every year, and then to nothing as Chris got married and had kids. The Ben Johnson piece, Volpone, was even harder to do as the company I was working with did not have the dedicated core. Because I had no money for cast, I could not find a suitable Volpone, the role eventually being played by an actor who had committed to a smaller role who wasn’t really up to the challenge. We opened in a small Eastern Ave space no one had heard of just as SARS hit. Needless to say, we had no audience.

    I got luckier directing A Man For All Seasons at Hart House Theatre because they had the resources and audience to make it worthwhile. But again, no one got paid.

    I would love to revist both the Shaw and Jonson but I would like to be paid. I would like to pay my actors, designers, and crew. Where can I find the money for that? I’d love to know.

    • MK says:

      And oh yes, venue. I designed Volpone specifically for the Annex stage, only to find out because Randolph had first dibs on it I couldn’t get a long enough run to build word of mouth. Saint Joan (and that whole Upstart Crow season) was done at the now defunct Poor Alex. Absolutely agree with the comments above re: the lack of space.

  5. […] U of T theatre prof Holger Syme related the conversation to some observations he has had on Toronto theatre lately. The two big ones: 1)Where are the young people on our stages? 2) Where is our classical work […]

  6. Julian Munds says:

    Nik is right. Speaking as a theatre practitioner who is always trying to find space for our work, there is very little affordable space in Toronto. Using the example of say the Annex, or Alumnae or even the back space of the Passe Muraille, the rental fees are very high. The Annex is over 2500 a week when working in the key holder fee. Alumnae is about even with that, and while Passe Muraille has a wonderful deal being 1300 a week, it is the only space and is therefore extremely hard to get into. But the kicker is, in a place like Annex or Alumnae the cost of tickets to break even on a show that say has about a 4000 dollar budget (and thats being exceptionally frugal, as my minor version of Twelfth Night was about that without a rental cost), would be about 25 dollars a full price ticket. Now try and get folks to pay that! Its rough. But I am not bemoaning the challenges of money, as that is the challenge of producing, I am bemoaning the lack of performance space that we young companies that wish to mount a show that requires more then two actors wearing bowler hats. I have been involved in London England with a Bertolt Brecht company there, that by the way just won some great awards for it’s Antigone, (and your’s truly received one in absentia) the performance space which is really a an old Hanger costs about 900 Pounds for the week, and this is a space that holds 100 easily. This does not exist in toronto, except of course for Fringe, but there is time limits on those productions. So really at the end of the day the problem is not the older generation, not the younger, not the lack of affordable space, but the lack of cultural identification with theatre. Theatre in Canada is foreign to the culture. Folks don’t treat it like a habit but a chore and this is what crushes the whole world. As long as we in fight we’ll never see the big picture and that picture is in Canada, theatre is a luxury not way of life. It is an extemporary past time not a place to be enlightened, and I for one have no clue how to change that. This is where my anger comes from, all the other little quibbles serve to fuel fire.

  7. Nik Cesare says:

    Being a relatively new import to Toronto, and to the theatre—primarily Canadian, primarily recently created—on its stages, I have found myself in a quandary over not only what constitutes a ‘new’ (read: experimental, or, despite its trickiness as a qualifier, even avant-garde) theatre in Toronto, but where one finds it. And in a greater quandary as to where the under-35’ers are producing such new work—other than, as an earlier responder noted, in the backs of bars. Which is great—I’m not critiquing the creative use of Bread and Circus, or the Imperial Pub, or Cameron House; however, having endeavored upon such a feat as a dramaturge with a new-music ensemble for ten years in Chicago and New York, there are limits to just how long such an enterprise can sustain an emerging artist or company. One needs both types of stages to take the necessary risks in developing one’s work, one’s reputation, and, importantly, one’s audiences.

    I can completely understand why the demographic David Ferry takes to task aren’t up in proverbial arms about the Factory Theatre’s treatment of Ken Gass. And I understand as well, Holger, your critique of Toronto’s “astonishingly limited theatrical canon.” My question in response, though, is where is there the space for emerging theatre artists to stage such productions?

    In New York, spaces like PS122, HERE Arts Center, and Dixon Place are reputable sites of off-off Broadway theatre that feature not only established artists but also a steady run of emerging artists and companies. (And that is not to mention the somewhat smaller spaces like The Flea, The Tank, and the mad wealth of venues one finds across the bridge in Brooklyn, including, of course, BAM.) As many of these artists are playing with the canon as much as creating new work, particularly the type of devised work that Michael Wheeler seems to be gesturing toward—and many are, in fact, doing both. The theatre company One Year Lease for many years drew exclusively on (in a broad sense) classical theatre in its productions—including works by Strindberg, Ionesco, Anouilh, and a new translation of the Oresteia—and now blends, as their website reads, that mandate with ensemble-driven work, devised work, and commissions of new texts. Director Lear Debessonet did a phenomenal country-blues adaptation of Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards at PS122. Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet corrupts Shakespeare in the most lovely and poignant way; and one of the most gorgeous and well-conceived productions I’ve ever seen was Aya Ogawa’s (Artistic Director of Knife, Inc., and formerly of the International WOW Company with Josh Fox) oph3lia at HERE, based, as you surmise, on Hamlet’s Ophelia. These are just a few examples—and don’t even touch on the companies that draw from literary examples rather than dramatic, like The Team’s Architecting, which, in Wooster Group–esque fashion, brings together Margaret Mitchell the author, Gone with the Wind the film adaptation, and post-Katrina New Orleans, and, from a slightly ascending demographic, Radiohole’s undoing of Moby-Dick in Fluke (and, of course, ERS’s epic Gatz).

    There are spaces—and I literally mean rooms with four walls and a floor; stage and proper lighting grid optional—for such theatrical risk-taking in New York specifically for emerging artists; with few exceptions, I’m not sure I’ve seen that in Toronto. (Though, please, prove me wrong!) I’ve come to adore Buddies in Bad Times in the way I did (and do) PS122 when I was in NYC; and, not so unexpectedly, our students’ productions at the UofT Drama Centre. Show and Tell, Alexander Bell by Ars Mechanica, an emerging ensemble comprised of recent and current DC students (and a magician!), remains the best show I’ve seen in the two years I’ve been in Toronto in its incorporation of intermedial innovation and postdramatic exploration—and literally unlike anything I’ve seen in Toronto’s primary theatre venues. Perhaps this is due to the granting structure here, which seems to celebrate Canadian work to such an exclusive degree that it creates a nearly impermeable cultural border around Canada; perhaps its due to the fact that audiences aren’t quite as attuned to such work as they are more traditionally styled productions.

    Writing in 1993, Richard Schechner cited the then-recent film Total Recall as an example of what he terms the ‘forward-looking avant-garde.’ That what Schechner, in his general critique of the notion of a contemporary avant-garde in late 20th-century theatre, read as a successful pop-cultural example of one facet of the historical avant-garde’s complicated relationship to technological innovation is being rereleased this summer with a younger cast but otherwise (judging from the trailer) very few structural shifts makes me oddly nervous for the state of what might constitute contemporary theatre at the not-quite-still-beginning of the 21st century. I understand that the dearth of living history in Toronto theatre creates an anemic theatrical body, if you will; but what supports emerging artists both to build on theatrical traditions and to create new work, and what contributes to a healthy theatre scene in any city, is having a network of small theatrical venues whose mission is to support and nurture new work—and to develop an audience familiar with and supportive themselves of such work.

  8. Nicole St. Martin says:

    Thank you for this article!

    After returning from training in Classical Acting at Drama Centre in London, England, I thought I’d at least get more auditions (if not jobs) here. I, in fact, got less. It was as though the training was a deterrent. Luckily, people I had worked with in the past started to call me up to work with them again and one company, in particular, Globus Theatre, renowned for taking chances on new talent, gave me a shot. They have subsequently asked me back four times over 5 years. I have felt privileged to work with some wonderful artists on Fringe and Summerworks productions and have gotten to be in some Classical and Modern plays produced by co-op companies or as a guest artist at Alumnae. But after almost never being called in for even a General audition (crashing and waiting for hours only to be told they couldn’t see me) at the established companies, I just decided to focus on the work I or others had created. Digging into great (known and lesser known) classics is so delicious though and I wish I could do it more often. I get together with other actors to just work on scenes from great works, as exercise.

    I take some comfort knowing that Colin Firth (I am not comparing myself to him but remarking on the incredible lack of openness to the new, and the unbelievable missed opportunities that that leads to), graduate of the same school I graduated from, (even after having established his career in the UK) could not get an audition to save his life whilst living in Canada. In one instance he wrote an AD who was producing a Pinter play and explained that he had been directed by Pinter in London and would love to audition for the production. He never got a reply. Bet that company is kicking themselves now!

    I love the theatre. I love great stories, whether they be Classical, Modern or Contemporary. I love my job. I will continue to be devoted to this art form and my craft and the people who are involved, no matter how disgruntled I feel every now and again.

    There seems to be a fear of producing foreign stage work and even a fear of foreign trained/ experienced actors. Aren’t we as artists supposed to be brave? Feel the fear and take the leap anyways? Don’t we try to make choices that challenge and frighten us?

    I also want to mention that while training in Moscow, I went to see many, many plays. As an actor you got into shows for free. The system is like the airplane stand by system…whatever seats are left, actors get to fill them. I saw Beckett, Ostrovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Shakespeare and even Tennessee Williams. The theatre community there didn’t seem opposed to producing plays that weren’t new Russian works.

    Great discussion! I have a feeling this is going to have an impact. The voiceless are demanding to be heard and some are so eloquent! Exciting.

  9. Joanne Rochester says:

    Maybe it’s because these theatres were mostly established with a mandate to develop new plays, specifically Canadian plays? Canadian theatre (I’m speaking from ignorance, and don’t really know) seems to start with Spring Thaw and move on from there — so the presentism is not surprising. But it is frustrating, for all the reasons you list.

    It’s also a self-perpetuating problem. The earlier plays have an alien dramaturgy, frighteningly formal dialogue full of weird words, bizarre characters with motives that aren’t ‘relatable’, and obscure, complex rhetoric. If you’ve not learned, by experience, that they are WONDERFUL to both perform and watch, you’re going to go with what seems safe: you’ll do something overtly political and ‘fresh’ if you want to be challenging or a Broadway musical if you want bums on seats. Companies in Europe routinely do de Lorca or Dryden or Shaw or Chekhov or Ibsen or Aristophanes or Coward or Jonson or Lope de la Vega or fill in the blank: audiences know how to approach them, and they’re comfortable watching them. And actors know how to approach them.

    I’ve go to say, though, that I’ve seen some interesting and innovative (if not always good) productions of Greek and Elizabethan plays in Toronto the last few years. But I agree that there needs to be a much broader range of stuff available.

  10. Melanie says:

    First of all, thank you for calling out Toronto on the fact that we rarely allow young actors an opportunity to work professionally. It does happen occasionally, and that’s being pretty generous. What I don’t understand is how young performers are supposed to grow and develop if they are never given the chance to stretch their muscles by working with more seasoned actors. We seem to be stuck in this strange place where, now that young companies and apprentices no longer exist, we have to prove ourselves for a decade doing indie, unpaid work. We take as many classes and workshops as we can afford, while still working our Joe jobs, balancing auditions, and developing a second specialty like writing, directing, dramaturgy, design, etc. Hell, maybe we’re working on a Masters degree while we’re at it.

    As to why we don’t seem to stage anything after Shakespeare or before Arthur Miller – heck if I know. I think Canadian theatres are somewhat coerced into doing new Canadian plays because it is far easier to get grant money that way. I think there is indeed a mistaken idea that Shaw and Stratford have the market cornered. There are many of us who can’t just hop in the car and catch a show in Niagara-on-the-Lake. As both a theatre artist and an audience member, I would love to see more variety on our stages.

    To me, it seems to boil down to one quality I find extremely frustrating in Canadian art in general; we are timid. We would rather stick to what we think we know and what we think will work. We underestimate our audiences and we underestimate our own creative potential. When I want to see a play that will change my way of thinking about the world or blow my creative socks off, I have to say that I rarely turn to the established companies. I look to see what my friends are doing in the back room of a bar this weekend.

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